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The anatomy of an election-year council meeting

By: Darren MacDonald - Sudbury Northern Life

 | Mar 11, 2014 - 5:01 PM |
The prospect of a municipal and a provincial election this year has had an odd effect on city meetings. File photo.

The prospect of a municipal and a provincial election this year has had an odd effect on city meetings. File photo.

With the October vote in the back of everyone's mind, it's anything but business as usual

It seems like forever since the Feb. 25 city council meeting, and nothing is on the schedule this week or last. But there's still plenty of drama at Tom Davies Square. Here's a look at a couple of the storylines:

Election years mean long meetings: Reporters are bad at predicting meeting length. I've seen meetings with next to nothing on the agenda somehow turn into four-hour marathons. Then there are ones with novel-sized agendas that fly by in an hour. I usually guess wrong.

But the new normal from now until the October municipal election will be long meetings. City councillors are either gearing up for re-election or making farewell tours. Either way, most everyone wants to be sure they speak, so it's on the record.

In fairness, I have to say that the first debate Feb. 25 – on sweeping changes to the city's taxi bylaw – was impressive. The staff report was thorough and made strong recommendations, and councillors raised good points – the potential for discrimination, for example, if cabbies were allowed to demand fares ahead of time. Making the new rules a one-year trial was a good idea, too, in case there are unintended consequences.

But then, in another debate a little while later, councillors somehow voted against their own purchasing policy. It was for a relatively small contract – three years, $61,000 for office supplies. The vote was preceded by a lengthy debate about the quality – and cost – of taxpayer funded pens staff should be permitted.

But when it came time to call the question, some councillors voted no, because they thought a local supplier's bid came close enough and should get the contract anyway. The lowest bidder was Staples Advantage Canada, which city staff said had 79 points on a evaluation criteria, compared to 70 for the closest competitor.

Apparently blind to the irony that they had just spent 20 minutes talking about the importance of saving a small amount of money buying cheaper pens, they voted to reject the contract award, arguing that spending more money on a local bidder was worthwhile.

A valid argument, perhaps, but it also contravenes their own purchasing rules, which they're obligated to follow if they want to be taken seriously when they put contracts out to tender. After all, if I'm a supplier from out of town, why bid on work in Sudbury if they're going to ignore their own criteria? Undermining trust in the public tendering process would definitely cost taxpayers in the long run.

So councillors had to vote to reverse their own decision, and vote again to approve the contract. Never saw that happen before.

The provincial vote casts a shadow: We already know that one city councillor – Ward 1 Coun. Joe Cimino – is taking a run at provincial politics, running for the NDP in Sudbury. And since he won the nomination, the friendly and loquacious (love that word) councillor has upped his game. Call it the double election effect.

But rumours of another local politician – Mayor Marianne Matichuk – being appointed as Liberal candidate in Sudbury just won't go away. And while she has said categorically she has not decided to run for the Liberals, she also has not categorically ruled it out. Which you would think she would do, if there was nothing to the story.

The recent announcement that Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is going to give Ombudsman Andre Marin oversight over municipal governments only adds fuel to the rumour fire. Matichuk has been, by far, Marin's biggest backer in Sudbury. And the extremely popular ombudsman has almost run out of negative adjectives to describe Sudbury city council, who fired him a year ago.

While not likely a big enough issue to sway the vote in Sudbury by itself, being seen as Marin's main backer wouldn't hurt Matichuk in a provincial campaign. The NDP is apparently worried enough that they polled Sudburians on whether the mayor would be a serious challenger in an expected spring election.

The Liberals have yet to set a date for their nomination meeting, let alone pick a candidate, unlike every other major party in Nickel Belt and Sudbury. Calls to the local riding association and to party headquarters in Toronto asking why they are waiting so long or if a date has been set have not been returned.

It could be all smoke and no fire. And the poor optics of appointing Matichuk over the existing candidates – businessman Andrew Olivier and engineer Elise Idnani, who are selling memberships and trying to win the old fashioned way – could give Cimino ammunition of his own.

All this sets up for a very interesting city council meeting March 25 – especially if, by then, we still don't know who is going to be the Liberal candidate in Sudbury. So there you have it – pontificating politicians, election subplots and rumours, procedural confusion during meetings, the looming return of the ombudsman – and I haven't even mentioned the excessive security measures the media and public are about to face if they show up for the March 25 city council meeting.

It's enough to make a humble city hall reporter's head explode.

Darren MacDonald covers city hall for Northern Life. Follow him on twitter @darrenmacd 
Darren MacDonald

Darren MacDonald

Staff Writer

@Darrenmacd

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